WASHINGTON — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office has requested the appointment of a special prosecutor to consider criminal charges against nine people it alleges were involved in a conspiracy to improperly obtain access to voting machines used in the 2020 election — including the presumptive GOP nominee for attorney general set to challenge Nessel in the November election.
In a petition filed Friday, Nessel's office asked the state's Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council for the appointment of a special prosecuting attorney in part to avoid a conflict of interest given that allegedly "one of the prime instigators of the conspiracy" is now Trump-backed Republican candidate Matthew DePerno.
DePerno allegedly "orchestrated a coordinated plan" with other individuals, including state Rep. Daire Rendon and Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, to gain access to voting machines that had been used in several Michigan counties in the 2020 election.
Five voting tabulators were taken to hotels or Airbnbs, where several people "broke into the tabulators and performed 'tests' on the equipment," the petition alleges. "It was determined during the investigation that DePerno was present at a hotel room during such 'testing.'"
The alleged conspiracy also involved the "printing of fake ballots to be run through the tabulators" and recruitment of "volunteers," the petition added.
DePerno's campaign manager, Tyson Shepard, said in a statement Sunday that Nessel "has a history of targeting and persecuting her political enemies" and alleged that her "actions are unethical and will further demonstrate to the voters that she is unfit for office." The statement, however, did not address whether DePerno participated in the alleged plot to gain unauthorized access to the machines.
In a radio interview with Michael Patrick Shiels on "Michigan's Big Show," DePerno said Monday that "we did nothing illegal" and that Nessel is merely trying to attack a political opponent by "weaponizing her office."
"It's all nonsense. It'll all be proved false," DePerno said, adding that he had "nothing to do with hotel rooms or any Airbnbs."
Leaf and Rendon did not immediately return requests for comment.
On Friday, Nessel’s office also sent a letter to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson notifying her about the investigation, which was conducted in coordination with the state police. The probe “uncovered that, after the 2020 election, a group of individuals gained unauthorized access and compromised tabulators” from several county clerks, the letter said.
The letter said a state representative, whom it didn't name, told some of these clerks that the representative was looking into election fraud and wanted them to turn their vote tabulators over to investigators. An individual identified as Person 1 in the letter, who it said was represented as "acting on behalf of the Sheriff's Department," went to various county clerks' offices in March 2021 to obtain the voting machines as well as a laptop used as an electronic poll book.
Person 1 “assured each separate clerk that they would be returned in just a few days,” but the machines were not returned until early April in some cases, and June and September in others, the letter said.
The attorney general’s office said it determined that the voting machines were “accessed improperly and damaged,” and they were decommissioned before this year’s primary election. The office also noted that in February 2021, a month before the alleged conspiracy unfolded, the Bureau of Elections sent out a notice that “only election officials, licensed vendors, or accredited voting system test laboratories should be granted access to voting equipment.”
“Election clerks should be notified that they should always request to see identification from any individual purporting to be a law enforcement officer and seeking to inspect or seize election equipment,” the attorney general's office wrote. “Further, even law enforcement officers should have a search warrant to inspect or seize equipment.”
The office also noted that it’s a felony punishable by five years in prison for a person to take undue possession of a voting machine used in an election.
Benson tweeted Sunday that there “must be consequences for those who break the law to undermine our elections & further political goals.”
“The election clerks of this state do their jobs with professionalism and integrity, and we will continue to ensure they are equipped with a full understanding of the legal protections in place to block bad actors from pressuring them to gain access to secure election systems,” she wrote.